Review of Stephen Smith’s “A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworths: Selected New and Old Poems”

Review of A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworths: Selected New and Old Poems

By Stephen Smith

Main Street Rag, 2010, 108 pages

ISBN:  9781599482576

 

Stephen Smith’s new book of poems, A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworths: Selected New and Old Poems, 1980-2010, is really two books of poetry.  The first, united under the Roman numeral “I” in the book, might well be called A Short Report on the Fire at Woolworths since the poem by that title is the last poem in the opening section, but it would be more revealing to call it “Living In the Shadow of the Bomb,” since that idea seems to be a unifying undercurrent in this first section.  One could argue that if that title suggests the poems are mostly about life in the 50’s and 60’s in America, then it could be used for the second section, called “II,” as well.  Such an argument, however, ignores two key facts regarding this second section of poems.  First, it would be most appropriate to simply call the section, “The Bushnell Hamp Poems,” since every poem in the section deals with the world of Smith’s loveable old (as in first collected in 1980) character by that name.  Second, the difference between the world of the two sections is that the first deals with the 50’s and 60’s South of the suburban middle class, those who were most worried about the bomb, while the second deals with a slightly older and considerably more rural and lower than middle class South, a South that seems at times to be an updated version of the South portrayed in the novels of Erskine Caldwell.  Taken together, then, the two sections create a fairly wide and deep view of the South over a span of some 30 to 40 years.

 

One thing the poems in both sections share is the sense that they are real.  There is no pretension or intellectual affectation here.  The poems feature people we know, although in the case of Bushnell Hamp and his friends we might not always want to admit it.  The stories and emotions are revealed with such clarity that time and again they move the reader to either tears or laughter, usually because we recognize ourselves in the narratives or revelations of motivations, anxieties, failures, and successes.  Former NC Poet Laureate, Fred Chappell, comments about the book that Smith manages “to find the general in the specific, the universal value in the local detail, to grasp the small part that will imply the whole.”  Smith, himself, discusses this practice of seeing ourselves in others in his poem, “Love,” when he says, “what we love / in lives of strangers is an inevitability / we perceive as just.”  This comment follows the narration of a celebrity love triangle where each participant ultimately receives their “just desserts.”

 

Smith’s ability to reveal the universal in the specific is even more apparent in “Cleaning Pools,” where he tells a story that illustrates how shared labor between father and son creates an understanding that goes beyond words:

 

Sheet lightning streaked

over the Chesapeake, and I began to notice

how after each flash, I went momentarily blind.

“It’s strange,” you said, finally, and without

my having spoken a word, “how quickly the pupil

closes to the light and how complete the darkness is.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . Perhaps,

as you said, it is like death, this sudden light

and inevitable darkness. Or perhaps it is the

purest grace. It says what fathers and sons

mostly cannot say.

 

And, again, in my favorite poem in the collection, “Coming Back to the Old Emptiness,” he uses the story of an abusive grandfather to portray social determinism, the parental desire to protect, the mutability of all things human, and the familiar necessities of understanding and forgiveness in what he calls “impossible love:”

 

So my grandfather rises

from the depths of the Depression

to flail my father (then a child

younger than my small son)

with an electric cord

. . . . . . . . . .

My grandfather is dying tonight,

the madness of eighty years–

. . . . . . . . . .

all of it crumbling.

. . . . . . . . . .

Because we suffer impossible love,

my father grieves tonight for his father

just as I grieve for mine,

and my son, safe in his bed,

will learn of these cruelties

only in a poem, which itself must

someday crumble, its dust rising in

final dissolution.

 

Unlike so many poets today, however, Smith is not always morbid, depressing, or heavy.  He recognizes that amidst the grave seriousness of our lives, there is also great levity.  The Bushnell Hamp poems take full advantage of this levity, but its presence in Smith’s perception of the world is made apparent even before the second section of poems and without the use of the dialect which characterizes the Bushnell Hamp poems and helps (re)create their levity.  One example is “Dear Michael,” where we hear the story of a boy whose wit makes the best of essentially falling into a urinal at a roller skating rink:

 

What must happen to everyone

who ceases motion happened to you: the world

rolled out from under. And to save your life

you put both hands in the urinal

. . . . . . . . . .

your pink

fingers frozen among the soggy cigarettes

and dead gum

. . . . . . . . . .

you asked me, “Want some spearmint?

How about a Lucky Strike?”

 

Similarly, in “Cricket Poem,” Smith’s appreciation of humor comes through as we hear about a young man who spills a box of 100 crickets in his car only to later have them interrupt a potentially fruitful moment:

 

She was about to moan yes

when a cricket whispered in her ear

and another called from

the glove compartment

. . . . . . . . . .

the cricket tabernacle choir singing

in ninety-nine part harmony

Nancy Nancy Nancy Nancy

save yourself forever.

 

Equally entertaining are the moments of irony Smith notices, such as the no smoking sign in a doctor’s office after a terminal prognosis is given in “Sign for My Doctor’s Waiting Room,” or the accidental destruction of turtles, sole survivors of the Woolworth’s fire, beneath the wheels of fire trucks, in the title poem.

 

Ultimately, the appreciation of the humor, importance, and urgency of life experienced by those who populate these poems, those who populated mid-20th century America, is driven by the looming shadow of the bomb.  That motivational presence is conveyed in “Fallout Shelter, October, 1962” and in “Bomb Dream,” but the same sense of urgency is present in “Nothing,” in “Fluid Drive,” and in many of the Bushnell Hamp poems, suggesting that while the threat of the bomb may have led some to a greater appreciation of life, it served mostly as a more imminent and tangible presence of the death sentence, the indeterminate “green mile,”  we all live with.  Thus, perhaps, the overarching message of these poems, the understanding which Smith expresses, is that mortality is our greatest motivator.

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